There is a new boogey-man for conspiracy theorists, environmentalists and the leftovers of the Peace Movement. It is a natural story – with the Pentagon, mysterious ailments, and allegations of cover-ups over sinister plans to dump nuclear waste on the Third World through high tech weaponry involving depleted uranium (DU). Unfortunately, the DU story is a classic case of wish fulfillment. Worse still, it appears to be a reprise of a similarly inspired and costly boondoggle.
Depleted Uranium is the spent by-product of uranium that has been used as a fuel in a reactor. It is a very dense material; whose surface becomes extremely hard when exposed to heat (such as that experienced by being fired as a supersonic projectile). These properties make it quite attractive both as an anti-tank ammunition and as a component of the high-tech armor sandwich in the American Abrams Tank.
“Pentagonese” isn’t the most poetic of English dialects, as the name of the APDSFSDU (for Armour Piecing, Discarding Sabot, Fin-stabilized, Depleted Uranium) anti-tank shell can attest. Depleted Uranium ammunition of this sort is fired from tank guns and as a projectile from automatic cannon on ground attack aircraft, helicopters and light armoured vehicles.
The author, some twenty years ago, was among a quartet of Canadian Army officers who “inspected” (we were sight-seeing, really) a series of retired tanks that had just been strafed by American A-10 Warthogs. The A-10s seemed almost soundless until literally overhead, and then God’s own chainsaw ripped into life. The derelict target tanks then became the center of a flurry of dust, actinic flashes and whirling sparks. They were still smoking as the last of the A-10s slipped away and we drove up to climb all over them.
Nobody is in the habit of firing DU ammunition for practice; it is much too expensive for regular use and is saved for wartime. However, given that the 30mm cannon of the A-10s had riddled the thick glacis plates and mantlets with holes, we assumed that we had witnessed a practice with “war-shot” ammunition.
According to the horror story-mongers, we must have been breathing in quantities of oxidized uranium dust for some thirty minutes and therefore should all be candidates for mysterious disabling diseases. Moreover, our children should have also been prone to birth defects and various ailments. Alas, all of us are in robust health. Admittedly, a statistical sample of ten is not much to go on… but even so.
The use of anti-tank ammunition made of DU in several regional conflicts has sparked allegations of mysterious health problems among veterans and those who lived near the arena of combat. Naturally, DU has been identified as a culprit because it is a) used by the US military; and b) it is uranium and must therefore be, without question, toxic as hell under all circumstances. This is all that critics of the US Military, Desert Storm, and the Kosovo bombings need to know.
But before the stampede to blame DU for inexplicable ailments from the Gulf War and the Kosovo campaign gets underway; there is a historical parallel to consider. Anyone remember Agent Orange?
Starting in 1969 and continuing through until the early 1990s, hundreds of Vietnam veterans blamed health problems, tumors and even psychological conditions on purported exposure to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. The Agent Orange scare was strongly encouraged by the environmental lobby, the Peace Movement, and the Hanoi government. Fabricating or distorting evidence is quick and simple, while a truth that depends on scientific evidence can take a long time to show up. Naturally, as the scientists were dragging their heels, the media turned to the sensationalists and the Agent Orange Myth took on a life of its own. 
Dioxin, the accused killer in Agent Orange can be dangerous and in large dosages is very lethal … to laboratory rats. Exposures humans receive are another matter. However, the thousands of Italians who were exposed to heavy doses of dioxin in a 1976 industrial accident did not develop excessive birth defects or reproductive failures. A 1984 Journal of the American Medical Association article on workers who had been exposed to a heavy dose of dioxins in a 1949 accident indicated these men did not have higher rates of cancer, heart or liver damage, nerve problems, kidney damage, reproductive problems or birth defects than was the average for men of their age group. They did have slightly higher rates of chloracne and digestive tract ulcers – both of which are quite treatable.
If any Vietnam Veterans had come down with problems related to Agent Orange, it would have been the high living “cowboys” of the Ranch Hand project – the US Airmen who actually sprayed the stuff. Flying at near-stall speeds about 50m above ground level, these servicemen took a lot of ground-fire. Indeed, one of their aircraft – known as “Patches” — is in the Air Force Museum in Dayton Ohio. Often, they ended up coated in Agent Orange when they sprayed it or had it sluicing around their ankles after being shot-up again. Moreover, at initiations for new members of their Squadron, both the newcomers and the older veterans would drink a glass of the defoliant.
Over 1,174 of the 1,206 veterans of this squadron have participated in a careful 20-year study of the results of their exposure to Agent Orange. Net result? The Ranch Hand group continues to have the same mortality rate as their control group of 1,293 similar men – and both have a lower mortality rate than the average American Male population. The only real difference in rates of those ailments associated with dioxin, despite massive exposure to Agent Orange, was that the Ranch Hand vets had a slightly higher tendency to display problems related to heavy drinking – something many of them engaged in as young servicemen on a nerve-wracking duty.
Otherwise, after $400 million in real research, the great Agent Orange scare turned out to be a bust. Real – verifiable and accurate – scientific research does not indict the material. However, it remains an article of faith among environmentalists and peace-movement members that the stuff is deadly. They believe and that is enough.
Real scientific research has not yet adequately connected DU to ailments among veterans – and certainly has not for populations in Iraq and Serbia (despite what the Hussein and Milosevic governments – exemplars of rectitude that they are – insist).
Indeed, the first stirring of interest in DU ammunition came from somewhat Left-of Centre researchers who traveled to Iraq in the early 1990s (after the Gulf War) in the search for additional arguments to hurl against the Coalition. The arguments were already mapped out, and a few “facts” were necessary to string them together.
The argument against DU has been hyper-inflated by activists who know much less than they think they do. For example, one claimed that DU munitions were designed to poison tank crewmen after their vehicle was hit. Oxidized DU may be toxic, but this would be of little or no concern to the occupants of a tank that has been successfully struck by a DU dart. They are already dead from massive kinetic shock or the thousands of red-hot fragments shredding the interior of their vehicle. If they survive this, they might have half a second before their fuel and ammunition cooks off. “Few die well that die in a battle” and this is especially true for the congealed puddles of fats or carbonized husks that tank crewmen risk becoming. If a DU dart slams through the mantlet of a T-72, the crew needn’t worry about cancer risks over the coming decades – the rest of their lives can be measured within a single heartbeat
As for the claims of widespread health problems that might be attributed to the use of DU, one wonders why the citizens of Kuwait (where most of the ammunition was used) do not seem to be sharing the poor health of their Iraqi neighbours. Moreover, even in Iraq, most of the big tank battles occurred far from the settled areas of the Tigris-Euphrates River. Might it be possible that the combination of shortages of food and medicine (caused by the continued sanctions) and the stresses of living under the thumb of the last of the old-time dictators might explain more about Iraqi health problems than notional exposure to depleted uranium?
Before Ottawa (or Washington) is stampeded into action about DU, they might wait for the facts. So should the rest of us.